Saturday 28 November 2009

Psychomania (1973)

Director: Don Sharp
Stars: George Sanders, Beryl Reed and Nicky Henson
Last films are always interesting things, especially when they're the last films of long established and well loved stars. Ghost Story and The Whales of August reach out at me for that precise reason and I'm sure they're going to be fascinating. This one has a unique place in the realm of the last film though, as not only is it the last film of an established star it's the last film of an established star who promptly committed suicide afterwards with a note that began, 'Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.' What's more it's a film centred around the attempts to come back from the dead. No, I'm not suggesting anything in the slightest but such a suggestion wouldn't be out of place as the script for a film that he could have starred in. He's George Sanders, known to many film fans as the driest, slyest, most deliciously villainous actor the cinema has ever seen. As of this film we'd sadly see him no more.

Psychomania, a title which has precisely nothing to do with the film in the slightest, begins as it means to go on: at a fog enshrouded stone circle called the Seven Witches, where a gang of bikers called The Living Dead weave in slow motion in and out of the stones which legend has it are actually petrified witches. There's psychedelic guitar music on the soundtrack to accompany them while they run through their formation steps and bike jumps and head off to do whatever it is that delinquent bikers do, these scary folks called Chopped Meat, Hatchet and Gash.

At least that's what we expect. These are hardly the usual Hell's Angels though, none of them look remotely like Danny Trejo and there's no raping and pillaging going on at all. This bunch wear matching face masks and have their nicknames painted on their leather jackets in fancy colours, not just the ones I mentioned but others like Bertram, Hinky and Jane. How scary can you be when you're called Hinky? Anyway when these juvenile monsters aren't helping their mothers with their shopping, they're knocking it out of other people's hands by riding really close to them in pedestrian shopping areas. Those wacky kids!

They're led by Tom Latham and his girlfriend Abby, who apparently hasn't even graduated to leather yet, instead wearing a fake denim jacket with her name painted on it in bright yellow letters, for all the world like she's a fourteen year old girl. Latham, played by Nicky Henson who was married to Una Stubbs at the time, has a Jim Morrison thing going on, talking about death all the time like it's a poetic journey and he's more than a little obsessed with committing suicide and coming back from the other side. 'Everybody dies, but some come back, don't they?' he asks wistfully while he gives up necking with his girlfriend to play with a toad.

He's in the right family at least, because his father apparently tried it and failed, and his mother, in the able form of Beryl Reid, is involved in some way with magic and the supernatural. The end credits call her a spiritualist but that doesn't seem to ring too true. It's not important in the grand scheme of things whether she's a Satanist or a pagan or merely someone who has made a deal with the devil, as what's important is that she knows things. George Sanders knows things too, as her butler called Shadwell who may just be something else too given how much we see done by a man with a ring with a toad on it, just like his. Tom knows that they know, so refuses to behave until his mother gives him the secret, the key to the locked room, a room that could destroy him.

What he finds in it is the will to go through with what he's been talking about all along: to die by his own hand and then come back, after conveniently waiting long enough for his gang to bury him in his leathers and on his bike, at the Seven Witches. They even thread little rings of flowers to throw into his grave because they're tough and manly, and Shadwell drops in a toad amulet. Sure enough he soon rides right out of his grave because they even left his bike with enough petrol to get him by in the afterlife, and persuades them all to join him by leaping out of tower block windows, off motorway bridges, out of aeroplanes without working parachutes, even leaping into rivers while weighed down with heavy chains but no clothes except a pair of swimming trunks. Thus they can bring new meaning to the name of their gang and carry on their important work bringing down the establishment by riding through supermarkets.

I'm not sure what this film was trying to tell us. You can come back from beyond the grave simply by killing yourself and at the moment of death wanting to return. You'll be immortal, impervious to pain and damage and able to do whatever you like. However this is bad, obviously, unlike making deals with the devil which is apparently perfectly fine and above board. Bikers are bad too but supermarkets are good, however easy they are to wreck. Supermarkets are our friends. Never mind all those murders, those delinquents ought to be strung up for what they do to our supermarkets! Yes, this all sounds inane but you watch it and tell me what it's about. Are writers Julian Zimet and Arnaud d'Usseau reading this? Let me know, folks...

However much this is really nonsense it's actually quite a fun and quirky piece of nonsense. Technically it's far better than I expected from a presumably low budget 1973 English horror movie. The stuntwork is excellent, especially on the road where the chases and other biking shenigans are done at obviously high speed and with notable suspense. The actors play pretty good corpses too and there's lots of attention paid to things that most films ignore, like how many bullets there are in a gun and that bikes need to be fuelled up and payphones need coins, whether the people using them are dead or not. The acting is precisely what you'd expect: capable, well spoken and solid, without anyone really standing out for extra attention, not even Robert Hardy as the chief inspector. Many of the minor characters are recognisable faces from English television.

I wonder what George Sanders thought of it. He finished the film but committed suicide long before it was released. He'd had a good run, the other end of his career being as far back as 1934 when he had an uncredited role in a Gracie Fields movie called Love, Life and Laughter. He soon established himself, becoming a rascal of a villain in a whole slew of movies throughout the thirties and eventually a rascal of a hero in many detective films, not just as Simon Templar, the Saint, but also as Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, before handing over to his real life brother, Tom Conway.

Wartime meant more villainous roles as sinister Germans, but there were some really good parts waiting in the wings for a patient man, not least personal favourites like Hangover Square and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both in 1945 and Village of the Damned in 1960. In between came many films including one that brought him his Academy Award: All About Eve, which I really need to get round to. Eventually his career would bring him to one of the most definitive sinister roles ever filmed, that of Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book. Every word that came out of that animated tiger's mouth dripped with the dry villainy of George Sanders and that casting choice surely must have been one of the key reasons for the film's success. It was his last great role before his death, this was merely his last role.

1 comment:

Propagatrix said...

I suggest dropping everything -- work, food, sleep -- until you've viewed "All About Eve." Sanders is breathtaking.